August 8, 2008

Reflecting on 54 hours of user innovation

The User and Open Innovation Workshop 2008 is now over and I’m safely back in California. This was my first time at the workshop. I was ambivalent about going given the distance and cost (vs. just driving down to Academy), but I’m really glad I did.

Authors presented 55 papers in 11 tracks (3-4 parallel tracks per session). Both these authors and the 28 (scheduled) research abstracts also did a brief introduction of their paper for the whole conference. To fit it all in, the workshop extended across 2½ days, with HBS picking up the sizable tab.

Given the strong European following of von Hippel and his user innovation paradigm — and the dominant European presence at the previous workshops — a few of the organizers wondered if any Americans would show up. They needn’t have worried. Sorting the registered participants by e-mail domain and home institutions shows 53 attendees from US institutions, counting the 10 from HBS and 6 from MIT.

However, another 84 were scheduled to attend from outside the US. (There were about 10 no-shows, mainly due to illness). As with previous years, there was a lot of opportunity to brush up on your German, with 19 from Germany, 16 from Austria and 3 of the 12 Swiss from Zürich. (Of course, home institution is not a proxy for nationality, particularly for EPFL which brought a Dutch, American and German participants)

Other highly visible countries were Denmark (9), UK (8), Japan (5) and Nederlands (3). There were also 2 each from Canada, France, Singapore and Spain, and 1 each from Australia, Belgium, Italy and Norway.

The workshop has come a long way since the 20 attendees at the first workshop in Vienna and 60 last year at Copenhagen Business School. I am grateful that they opened up the workshop more broadly to those without direct MIT-HBS ties. The “open innovation” part of the conference was pretty small, but I suspect that was the self-selection of applicants to the formerly UI-only workshop.

Eric Von Hippel said he found the massive number of papers and participants energizing, as a way to stay on top of what’s going on in the field. However, my sense is that some people missed the intimacy of the smaller workshop (even 60), but were too polite to voice such anti-egalitarian sentiments in front of us newcomers.

If it were my conference (it’s not), I’d be seriously torn because there’s no way an invitation-only conference can identify all the interesting work, and a conference based on “Democratizing Innovation” should be fair in soliciting participation. However, the conference is clearly no longer a workshop, and it’s heading in the direction of the mega-DRUID conference.

Next year the conference is scheduled to be held in Hamburg in a room that only holds 120 people. Without the HBS sugar daddy, they’ll also have to charge a few hundred euros for meals. That will cut down on the participants — perhaps more like 90 Europeans, 25 Americans and 5 Asians.

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